App and Desktop
© Deutsche Bahn AG

From idea to smartphone

It’s all about the apps

11/2016 - The right apps pave the way for a mobile future. DB Systel develops customised applications for customers and partners alike. How such apps are created is demonstrated by a visit to the workplace.

Dirk Wendt
Dirk Wendt, Developer at Solution Center Mobile, DB Systel
© Deutsche Bahn AG

Twenty-six-year old Dirk Wendt can genuinely be regarded as a home-grown product of DB Systel, because he began his training as an IT specialist with the company as far back as 2010. He then worked there for over a year on the IRIS project – a web interface for displaying timetable data. In late 2014, Wendt then moved to the mobile solution centre, where he has since been developing system solutions and smartphone apps. For Dirk, this is a dream job, for his interest in computers and software began already during his teenage years.

Digital content and functions are accessed from everywhere and increasingly from smartphones. DB Systel is developing a wide range of apps for user-defined deployment. These include applications at B2B level but also apps for passengers. Regardless of which target group the app is addressing, the development is customised and tailored to relevant needs – whether it’s an app like PlanStart, which was developed in a matter of weeks, or the significantly more complex MEM Mobil project by Dirk Wendt, which can be used to report general incidents.

“Of course, we don’t need to rethink everything for every new development”, says Wendt. “But every customer has its own framework conditions.” DB Station&Service, for example, would in future like to execute quality controls more efficiently using mobile applications such as MEM Mobil and PAP Mobil to save time and money, or even simply to reduce paper consumption. “The collaboration is fantastic. Colleagues have the technological skills and are in step with the times. They know exactly what they want”, says Wendt. It was already decided at the briefing which functions the app should have, and even the fundamental layout was defined in advance. “This means we can concentrate on the technical implementation.”

Combining apps into one

Until now, there were several apps for testing any objects located on railway property. The aim of PAP Mobil is to consolidate parts of the testing process from the older apps into one application and thus merge all the tests to be performed. And there’s more: it’s also possible to add photos and comments using the app. During a tour of the premises, for example, a defective lamp may be discovered that is to be checked in a test. In this case, the employee can immediately take a photo of this lamp using the smartphone and send it too. This saves time and paper and also eliminates sources of errors, because employees often had to note their findings and comments on forms and then transfer them to the computer system manually. As defects can be eliminated even faster, passengers also benefit indirectly from the app through better service and quality.

Selection of apps developed by DB Systel

PlanStart

The smart app helps to make delays visible and reduce them

THOR

When it comes to provisioning trains, things must be done quickly. An app is now helping to provide a better overview of the condition of train toilets. Thanks to THOR, supply and disposal for train toilets is now carried out on an as-needed basis.

Barrier-free

The DB Barrierefrei (barrier-free) app is geared towards the needs of passengers with reduced mobility. The aim of this app is to provide customers with a digital travel companion containing all relevant information along their journey in a helpful form. A convincing concept: the app received the 2016 Hessian State Prize for Universal Design.

Train drivers

Twice a year, DB Fernverkehr train drivers must undertake an accompanied run, which is similar to a driving test. Until now, the entire test was a time-consuming paper-based process, but since the beginning of this year, train drivers are tested and monitored with the help of an app (“ÜtF”).

PAP Mobil

This application consolidates tests with corresponding test intervals, making it easier to issue, sign off and archive work orders, eliminating the need for subsequent digitalisation and archiving of these orders.

MEM Mobil

The MEM Mobil app tracks and controls all incidents in a station. Instead of inconveniently noting down defects and malfunctions on paper and later entering these into the system, staff can now enter them directly using the app.

DIVA

Paper still rules the roost in the DB Long Distance maintenance depots. Work orders are printed out, signed off and collected again. Everything has to be digitalised later in a time-consuming process. This will soon change: with the help of DB Systel, the forms will be available on tablets.

App development is just one part of the everyday work of Dirk Wendt and his colleagues. At least as important is the task of advising customers – not only in advance but also during a project. For example, customers often don’t have any real ideas or they need support to optimise processes. For one thing is clear: an app can only bring improvements if the processes behind it are functioning properly.

When an app is developed, issues to be resolved always arise, for example, ways of implementing the design with maximum user-friendliness, despite many functions. In collaboration with the UX Team, which is responsible for designing the interface and user guidance, questions concerning optimal operation are often solved and implemented quickly during programming. This is where the trust gained from the close collaboration pays off: “If we notice something that could perhaps be optimised for the user, the customer usually says yes to our suggestions.”

Working together to find the best solution

Daily exchange with customers over the phone ensures that everyone involved is fully informed of the latest state of development. In addition, customers are given the opportunity once or twice a week to get a live picture of the prototypes and test the implemented functions. In this way, customers are informed about every phase of development, and a joint step is taken to achieving the best solution, which does not even require the use of a smartphone.

A challenge in app development is presented by the countless combinations of end devices and Android versions, plus the varying screen size from one smartphone to the next. To test how the app works on popular devices, Wendt uses a development environment on a computer that emulates different smartphones. “Our development is supported by standardised user interface layouts and interaction models that are available as reusable code. These operating concepts that are being developed with the UX Team enable all our apps to have a similar look and feel and thus a high recognition factor.” During development, for example, we define jointly with the customer the minimum requirement that a smartphone must meet. This is important, particularly as the corporate guidelines for data protection have to be observed – and many older Android versions no longer offer any corresponding options, and thus fail to meet the required standards.

Satisfying wishes and reaching targets

Solving problems, improving things and processes – that’s what Dirk Wendt loves about his job. For this reason, he’s also embarked upon a part-time distance-learning course in applied informatics, in order to deepen his knowledge. He even uses his train journeys to and from work as study time, as he wishes to secure his graduation in just three more semesters.

Much sooner, namely at the end of this year, development of PAP Mobil should be complete. But the next project for Wendt has already been decided. “I’d like to tackle hybrid apps”, in other words, applications that function on different operating systems. “In this way, our customers get the greatest possible benefit at a relatively low cost.” When answering the question as to what the future might hold for him, Wendt reveals that he could imagine a combination of technology and travel. After a few moments of thought, he adds: “Actually, that’s what I’ve already found at Deutsche Bahn!”